Israel's Education Ministry Disqualifies Civics Textbook
By Talila Nesher
April 19, 2012

The Education Minstry on Wednesday banned a civics textbook whose authors claim was targeted by right-wing legislators because of its criticisms of Israeli policy and society.

The book, "Starting Out in Citizenship," written by Assaf Matzkin and Bina Goldie, has been criticized for its treatment of the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead, right-wing violence in Israel and its depiction of immigration from the former Soviet Union.

"This is an uncompromising intervention of the Knesset committee in a role it does not have. That a Knesset committee comes and tells us what to write in a civics book seems to me to be something terrible. They did not make any examination, since that must be done with the authors. This has been a year of persecution, all for party and political reasons. It is persecution," said Matzkin.

The book has been used in schools this year after it had already been approved by the Education Ministry, which retracted its earlier decision in an announcement in front of the cameras at a session of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee yesterday afternoon.

Committee chairman MK Alex Miller (Yisrael Beiteinu ) called an emergency session during the Knesset recess to discuss civics instruction.

The official explanation of why the book is to be removed from classroom use is that it contains a long list of factual errors that were discovered only after it was published, though much of the criticism leveled against the book at the highest levels in the ministry have been political.

"It is very simple - the conflict in the ministry is between two approaches: To educate for nationalist-patriotic citizenship with a little bit of formal democracy, or to educate for a Jewish, pluralistic and democratic state," said chairwoman of the Academic Forum for Civics Instruction, Dr. Ricki Tessler of Hebrew University. "The battle is on over whether textbooks are to liberal at the expense of nationalism," she added. The entire purpose of the committee meeting was to establish the basis for rejecting the book, and then firing Cohen, she said.

'Serious failure'

"We carried out a strict and thorough process of self-examination in relation to the process of approving the book and also its contents," Education Ministry Director-General Dalit Stauber told the Knesset committee. "I regret that the result is that the approval of the book is a serious failure. I ordered to stop using the book as part of my responsibility to students. We are in the midst of a process of drawing conclusions," she said.

But Stauber herself wrote a letter in November 2011, which Haaretz has obtained, that reveals quite a bit of the fierce battle against the new book and the Education Ministry's supervisor of civics instruction, Adar Cohen. Stauber was replying to complaints made about the book to Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar.

"I would like to make it clear that the book has been approved by the authorities in the Pedagogical Department, just as with every other book on civics," Stauber wrote in the November letter to the book's authors. She was replying to public criticism from the former chairman of the Pedagogical Department, Dr. Zvi Zameret, who was the first to criticize the new book publicly.

The ministry had authorized the use of three civics textbooks, including another one written by Bar-Ilan Prof. Avraham Diskin, "Law and Politics in Israel," and an older book the ministry has decided should be rewritten due to "too much criticism of the state." Teachers were allowed to choose between the three books this year, before "Starting Out in Citizenship" was rejected.

Many educators say the ministry has crossed a red line in rejecting the book, accusing it of limiting freedom of expression in a democratic society.

There has also been an attmept to oust Cohen over the publication of the book, but many teachers have rallied in his support.

Cohen claimed the controversy over the textbook focused on one sentence: "There is a dispute about the way in which historical events surrounding the state's establishment should be presented, and this argument divides elements in Israel." He said this disputed sentence has now been revised.